Why Parents Need to Stop Telling Their Kids to “Just Focus on Their Studies”

I was recently giving a talk to university students on why they needed to go beyond their education. Learning on its own is no longer enough to succeed in the job market. Students today need to get into the habit of actively applying their learning. In my world of talent marketing, it is crystal clear that education itself is no longer a big differentiator between students. Within any program there are hundreds of students that will graduate having studied the same material. In the talent marketing of students employers do not value what students know, they value what students can do.

After the talk a student approached me. He told me that what I said made sense but he was having a hard time reconciling it with what his parents were telling him to do. I quickly learned that he was the first person in his family to attend University. It was a huge source of pride for the family and he felt a lot of pressure to excel academically to show he deserved to be there. His parents told him to quit his part-time job and devote his full attention to his studies, which he did. Now here I was telling him that this approach would make his life as a job seeker more difficult than it needed to be.

Students put grades on a pedestal. And it makes sense, grades define success in the academic environment. For most University students, the academic environment is where they’ve spent most of their lives. The problem is that grades do not define success in the job market. A 70% student with relevant experiences and the ability to show competency will consistently beat out a 90% student who has focused solely on their studies. The job market today has shifted and while recruiters may say they want the smartest hires, what they are looking for are doers.

Don’t believe me? Take a student who has a degree in professional writing. What do you think will be more impressive to a potential employer: a student that got 90% or a student with a 70% that runs a blog over 10,000 monthly visitors? Who would you want to hire, a student who got 90% in social media marketing or a student who got 60% in social media marketing and that has successfully built a twitter account to over 500,000 followers?

As a parent, your kids look to you for guidance, perspective, and support. At this point in their life it is very important that you are not shortsighted. What outcome is more important? A child that has the best grades on graduation or a child that lands the best career and employment opportunities? Gaining clarity on the true desired outcome matters because the path to these two outcomes are very different. One path relies on an intense focus on studies, the other relies on investing time in experiences (work and volunteer), relationship building with professionals (attending employer functions, gaining mentors), self reflecting on ways to prove skill sets learned in class, understanding how project their talent, and more.

For parents who believe preparation for these outcomes can happen sequentially. Meaning, your child can focus on studies before graduation and then after graduation they can shift focus to landing a job. Remember that the transition from academic life to professional life presents a drastic change in the rules for success. It is not fair to expect a child that has spent over 15 consecutive years entrenched in the academic environment adapt to a brand new environment quickly. The current rates of unemployment and underemployment, along with the skyrocketing student debt crisis are a testament the difficulties new graduates are having in adapting to professional life.

Preparing to be successful in professional life takes time, and it requires more than focusing on studies. As a parent, encourage your child to use their time at university to take more risks and to do more things. Get involved in campus projects, student associations, and clubs. Volunteer more time to gain invaluable experiences. Forge relationships with employers, recruiters, mentors, and relevant professionals. Put their education to work in self driven projects. These things may not contribute to giving your child the highest grades, but they will contribute to helping your child maximize their marketability to land the best roles on the market on graduation.